Make Room, Make Room

Make Room, Make Room

Enrollment problems at elementary, secondary schools create worries for parents, school staff members.

A year ago, parents of children slated to attend the South County Secondary School anxiously awaited the day when they'd walk through a brand new building, the first students in the county's first new secondary school in decades.

In a few months, those same parents will be wondering where their child will attend school following a boundary study, a drastic measure the School Board has decided is necessary after an estimated 3,000 students are projected to attend the school starting in September.

"I knew the school was going to be crowded, but I never thought it would be within a year's time," said Liz Bradsher, a Crosspointe resident and one of the people often credited as working to negotiate the public-private partnership that got the school built earlier than scheduled on the school system's Capital Improvement Plan.

"What a difference a year makes," she said.

THE SECONDARY school parents aren't alone in their concerns about overcrowding: two of the three elementary schools in the area, Lorton Station and Silverbrook, are overcrowded as well, while a third school, Halley, has extra space.

In order to make the most of the empty classrooms at Halley, the school system's Office of Facilities Planning has approved an administrative boundary study, in effect immediately, that would put all new homes or planned construction into Halley.

"This is in no way an ideal solution to implement, but it does address the problem of overcrowding," said Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of transportation and facilities.

Parents had originally been opposed to the administrative boundary adjustment, saying it would create "islands" in their neighborhoods.

However, the School Board was unable to reach a consensus on how to make changes to fix the problem, said School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon).

"I didn't agree with all of what [Facilities staff] wanted to do, but staff implemented the change because it could, even without the full support of the board," he said.

It is expected that the Board of Supervisors will soon approve an additional $5 million per year in funding for the school system, which would allow certain projects, like the planned Laurel Hill Elementary School, to be built sooner. According to Tistadt, that would make the changes to the current elementary schools "a temporary situation."

Moving new homes into Halley "is the best choice available to us," he said.

The Lorton Station school opened less than five years ago, and rather than have the area go through two boundary studies back to back when the new school opens, the administrative change makes more sense, said Gary Chevalier, chair of the Office of Facilities Planning.

"Folks recognize this is a bad situation and that's exactly what it is," Chevalier said, of the crowded schools. "But we'd rather do this than make a series of changes now and have to do it all over again in a few years."

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the families at South County, where the addition of at least 500 students in September will put the building over its 2,500 student capacity.

"We're going to determine the scope of the boundary study at the next work session," said School Board member Brad Center (Lee), who said he is hopeful the board will set certain "parameters" into the study to make sure the problem is solved.

For example, it is a possibility that students will be moved into Hayfield and Lake Braddock Secondary Schools, and Center said it wouldn't make sense to cause those schools to become overcrowded to reduce the strain on South County.

"We haven't explicitly stated which schools are included" in the study, he said, but most of the discussion to this point have included those three secondary schools.

"This boundary study is going to be horrible," Tistadt said. "We knew the building would eventually be over capacity, but not to this extent."

MANY OF THE parents involved at South County have expressed frustration with the school system for the flaws in enrollment projection. Tistadt said they "have a real reason to be less than happy with what's going on. They have good reason to feel the school system let them down."

In an attempt to regain the trust of parents, the School Board has discussed hiring a consultant to review the methodologies used to project enrollment numbers, and a Request for Proposals has currently been sent out to hire a consultant, Chevalier said. Once hired, it is expected the consultant would complete his or her work over the summer in time for changes to be made for the upcoming boundary study.

"I'd be very surprised if we did the boundary study the same way as the initial one" that established the boundaries of the school, Chevalier said.

Storck said he believed the process would be "more defined," possibly involving changes to the enrollment at the school instead of the boundary itself.

"The [School Board] work session on May 8 will be a critical meeting," Storck said, adding, "I wouldn't be surprised if we had to come back at a subsequent meeting to finalize things."

Going into the study, South County PTSA president Lisa Adler said the most important thing for parents to remember is "we're all in the same boat. Everyone needs to be a lot kinder and gentler to one another. This is hard on everyone," she said.

The best possible outcome of the study, she said, is for the creation of a middle school.

"It will be built one day because this area stands to offer a lot to its residents ... if you look at the trends for growth in this part of the county, FCPS Facilities Office has repeatedly been off the mark," Adler said. Planned housing development along Route 123, for example, will bring more families into the area, and the impact of the Base Realignment and Closure changes to Fort Belvoir is still unknown, which could increase the population further.

Tistadt, however, thinks the middle school won't be necessary, based on the extra capacity available at Hayfield and Lake Braddock secondary schools.

"We're going to keep it on the CIP, but I won't move it up into the five-year window," he said. "If the capacity requirements get to the point where we need the extra space, then when the time comes, [the middle school] would be built."

Building an extra wing on the secondary school would be a compromise, but "I don't know if the community would be able to live with that," Bradsher said. "This community deserves a middle school. That's what we were told we'd have."

In the meantime, five modular classroom units have been installed in the parking lot at South County, a daily reminder of things to come.

"It's not pretty," said Christine Morin, a Laurel Hill resident who sees the trailers every morning.

She agreed with Adler that parents need to make sure to keep positive about the possible changes to their children's school.

"We have to do what's best for the students, they are what's most important."